Posted September 2, 2020 by Andrew Cathie in Feature

Sometimes, Nostalgia Is All I Can Handle

Outside of Rocket Chainsaw I’ve openly spoken about my struggles with anxiety and depression, but it’s something that I rarely discuss in my writing. There are mornings, days and weeks where I trudge through life, barely able to motivate myself to get out of bed, let alone play a game. Through many of these times, the act of doing nothing makes me feel useless, because it feels like I’m squandering my time. This is a situation that I’ve found myself in more as we wind our way through the path laid by COVID-19. It’s in these moments that I turn to the old and familiar, the things that I’ve experienced before and know that I love, but also know that I don’t need to focus on as much. Sometimes, nostalgia is all I can handle.

For the most part, video games are an active form of entertainment. You have to actively engage with them, be that as little as making decisions or investigating in a visual novel, or as complex as smashing out combos in a fighting game. Unlike books and movies, you can’t just switch off and be swept along the journey. You have to be actively participating and paying attention to what’s occurring, often with little respite. Generally speaking, there’s never really that time where you can become completely passive in games.

Even the most calm and relaxing of experiences in video games fall into this bucket. Games like Ooblets are a great example of this. There’s no real time pressure, there’s no game overs to worry about and everything is cute and friendly. On the flipside, you still need to review your goals, search for specific resources and manage your stamina, all totally active participation metrics. Another example is the great podcast game Destiny, an experience that you can often half pay attention to while listening to a podcast or chatting to friends because you’ve played the same mission a million times. When I’m struggling to motivate myself with the simple task of sitting up because I feel so defeated that I can’t see the point in it, shooting aliens of blasting them with space magic is simply too much.

It’s during these times, the ones where I can barely bring myself to keep going, that I turn to nostalgia. I return to the familiar worlds of the past, the paths I tread as a child when things were simpler. I leave the active participation needed for new experiences and instead turn towards the stories and mechanics I already know. When I can’t handle anything else, these are the games I turn to in an effort to keep going. To keep doing something.

There are a couple of reasons for this, but both of them stem from one source: these games are familiar. I’ve played them before. I’ve explored their worlds and engaged with their stories. I know the mechanics, I know the story and I know the flow. I don’t have to learn new mechanics or stay engaged with their stories. I can simply play at my own pace, tuning in and out at any point without fear of missing an important detail, because I already know them all. There’s no pressure to be switched on at all times, and that provides a layer of comfort when I’m in a position where focus and motivation simply can’t be mustered.

That familiarity flows into something else: there’s no feeling of failure if I walk away. I’m not talking about dying in a game. I’m talking about that feeling of defeat and anxiety that comes with something that’s unfinished. That feeling of frustration and annoyance, knowing that you’ve started something, but you just can’t bring yourself to finish it. That feeling of knowing everything is in your head, that it’s your own fault that it’s unfinished. That feeling of self-contempt that is heightened when you’re already feeling low and defeated. I’m playing something I’ve already completed. I already know how it ends and it doesn’t matter if I don’t finish it this time, because I’ve already seen it before.

There’s one final thing that these nostalgic experiences do for me when it feels like everything has gotten to hard to handle. They remind me of better times. They remind me of the days where all I had to worry about was what the hell Edea was planning in Final Fantasy VIII or wondering what I needed to do to get my Kadabra to evolve in Pokémon Red. There was no global pandemic to worry about, no fear of people’s perception of me and no mental voice reminding me of my failures. There was just discovery and curiosity.

Sometimes, nostalgia is all I can handle, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Sometimes, that feeling of the familiar, with no fear of failure is exactly what I need to help feel like I’m accomplishing something when I’m at my lowest. I can slip in and out of them with ease, knowing that no matter how I feel going in, I won’t feel any worse on the other side. Sometimes, that’s all I really need.

Andrew Cathie

Rocket Chainsaw's premier Fantasy-loving Editor. I basically play anything and everything that looks like it could be fun or interesting.